Tag Archives: anais nin

Book Review: The Man Who Would Be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions by Hoshang Merchant

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As one less famous homosexual complained about another recently, “He does no justice to the adjective gay!” If a grievance can be leveled against this memoir by India’s most famous homosexual (and that happens to be the preferred self-descriptive noun in this book), it is that it is rather lacking in gaiety indeed. Hoshang Merchant’s The Man Who Would Be Queen: Autobiographical Fictions is romantic, lyrical, vivid, but also, above all, sad.

In an almost stream-of-conscious style, Merchant chronicles some of the highlights of sixty years of his resolutely interesting life: beginning with his first memory of his mother (“I believe Mother-rule is the root of male homosexuality,” a small literary journal quoted him as saying last year) and ending with his current situation as a professor who “fathers” – as the author bio says – “his books, his students and a young friend”. The almost staccato impressionism with which he renders his childhood and adolescence does not belie their darknesses. His wealthy family is rife with dysfunction: his father’s infidelity, his parents’ eventual divorce, a sister who tries to shoot herself, and even an almost unspeakable incident in which the author shakes his mother, causing her to fall and break her hip, after which he attempts suicide. Merchant left India at the age of twenty, a year before his mother died, and it’s impossible not to sense the mourning in the two decades he spent abroad.

But those decades, in the USA and in particular in the Middle East, are the stuff of legend. “Sex is a way to sainthood,” he quotes his icon and penpal Anaïs Nin more than once – and Merchant certainly attempts canonization. In California, “a retired army man bent again and again to kiss a herpes sore on my inner thigh”. In Netanya, he enjoys a sexual encounter on a nude beach with a “Venus with a penis”, cheered on by onlookers. In a cemetery near the Dead Sea, which he notes as the site of the ancient Sodom, he watches as “people made love athwart graves”. Ironically, it’s in details like these that the pigeonholing of this book as the autobiography of a gay man is overshadowed by its importance as the autobiography of a poet.

Merchant is the author of twenty books of poems and the editor of a seminal anthology of gay Indian literature, and while the trajectory of his literary career finds surprisingly little mention in these pages, the celebrity accrued through it precedes this memoir. For those seeking arty scandals and name-dropping, however, this book contains quite little of either. “Gossip had become aesthetic,” he writes of a time in his life during which he is accused by a lover of using their affair for the poetry it inspires. Perhaps the experience chastised the author just a little too much.

Although the vast majority of other people who populate this book are barely sketches (with the exception of his vicious stepmother and perhaps some other relatives, it’s difficult to imagine anyone taking umbrage at what is revealed), what emerges is a well-rounded, often searingly honest image of Merchant himself as a person, rather than as a persona. Demanding diva? Homosexual paragon? His time in Palestine nuances both perceptions. At one point, he worked as a toilet cleaner and garbage picker. At another, he converted to Islam to marry his sweetheart, a woman named Yasmin.

His difficult time in Iraq, where he faced an especially rough amount of discrimination, is covered in the memoir through a series of letters; it is as though the experience was too painful to revisit in new writings. But it is where the book ends, in the author’s present-day life in Hyderabad, which is most depressing. Merchant eschewed his inheritance, gave away numerous personal items, and chose to live in an attic costing only Rs700 in monthly rent, with few belongings. Are these the choices of someone in the pursuit of austerity, or of attention? There’s a vulnerability in these pages that is deeply convincing of the former, yet also results in the latter. Either which way, the image of a celebrated artist living in relative penury in his old age is discomfiting.

But then, The Man Who Would Be Queen is the memoir of a true bohème, and perhaps a poet must be indulged his melancholies. In the end, as much as one wishes for more delicious wickedness in the recounting of the past, or a less sombre depiction of the present, the author is brave enough to feign neither. Merchant writes that (Tennessee) “Williams’ autobiography catalogues the decay of an aging queen. It is a sad spectacle”. Merchant’s own is sad, but at least it is no spectacle.

An edited version appeared in The Sunday Guardian.

The Venus Flytrap: In Defense of Insensible Fashion

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Some people know they’re depressed when they can’t eat or sleep. I know I’m depressed when I stop giving a damn about what I’m wearing. I’m a huge believer in what Tim Gunn called “the semiology of dressing”; my ostentatious collection of attire and accessories – stacked, scattered or in storage – colour my allegiance glorious. From fluorescent pink bras to huge hibiscus hair ornaments to boat-shaped bags you could zip me into, I have it all, and then some.

Ever since I began choosing my own clothing, I’ve taken this liberty and spun carousels with it. In college, I enjoyed semesters of never repeating an outfit. It wasn’t as though I set myself a challenge. I just had that many clothes and that much imagination and that much disrespect for the humility required in the face of Institutions.

My passion for fashion has often been privileged over common sense. I own a red feather boa, after all. I’ve stalked through international business districts in cowboy hats and feathered ornaments. I went to church the other day draped in a black wool crotchet poncho. In Madras. In May. Because that’s just what I think I should wear to church. It helps me feel, you know, spiritual. Whatever sins I confessed to, rest assured they were not sartorial.

Get off your holier-than-thou clotheshorses, I’m only kidding (but not about the poncho). For more drastic consequences than death by flamboyance, consider this: I’ve done dozens of spoken word readings, but excepting a few truly special ones, pretty much all I recall about most involves what I wore. When I did my first solo show a year ago, I embarked on several expeditions seeking the perfect outfit. I settled on thigh-high leopard print boots and a brown kurta worn as a dress with a huge waistbelt. I spent the afternoon before the event hand-stitching the kurta to my shape. I wrote my set list in the taxi on my way to the show.

Do I dress for men? Absolutely. I also dress for women. I dress for pets. I dress for plants. I dress for praying and flights and to hang out by myself. I dress to drink black coffee at 1a.m. and dance around in my sister’s room for an hour and incur her wrath. I dress because if God had wanted us to be drab, She wouldn’t have created the bias cut and the body to carry it off.

I also dress down. I do the typical Fab India kurta and jeans work thing. I tie my ridiculous Draupadi hair up. When I really need to get serious, I even wear my glasses. It’s all about aura. And as the most cunning coquette will tell you, sometimes it pays to keep it toned down.

I’m a slave to my narcissism, alright. Stoned on my own sensuality (and greatly bolstered by my uncanny ability to spot rock bottom bargains). Vainpot? Yes. Victim? No chance.

What I do, dressing up and down and occasionally upside down – it’s not what a magazine or a man or a mannequin told me is expected of me. It’s not under someone else’s power.

There is one dogma I live by, and it is this. Anais Nin wrote: “Women always think that when they have my shoes, my dress, my hairdresser, my makeup, it will all work the same way. They do not conceive of the witchcraft that is needed. They do not know that I am not beautiful but only appear to be at certain moments”. And that’s my secret.

Because it is power. And all of it, every last bead and hook and the divine proviso of femme fatale-ness vested within, is mine.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my weekly column in the Zeitgeist supplement.

“The Lovechild of Anaïs Nin and Johnny Cash. Pure Sin on Amphetamines.”*

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(Or, Contrary to popular belief, I am not in love with the sound of my own voice.)

But I enjoy using it, especially in artistic expression. And there is some evidence (occasionally culled from speaking to distracted drivers from the backseat…) that shows that there are folks out there who kinda like it too.

No hidden brag posts here, just a nice dose of the shameless usual. I resurrected my Myspace account as a musician one, so as to upload spoken word recordings. You can find me here. Two poems are up now: Karna Considers Yuanfen and And If You Still Must Leave, both recorded by Kieran Kuek at 2am studios, Kuala Lumpur, last year. The latter poem is up in two versions — the violent rendering, in which I usually perform it, and a colder, more controlled one, which Kieran encouraged me to explore as an alternative method of delivery.

To be honest I wouldn’t say that it’s these two poems that should introduce people to my work, but those are the ones I have good recordings of.

I’ve found that I don’t enjoy recording in studios, or for the sake only of recording, very much at all. I slip up more. I feel less in my element. There is an absence of a certain haphazardness, which gets lost in multiple takes. I remember something I read in a magazine maybe a dozen years ago, when I certainly could not relate but was intrigued enough to keep it in mind — the singer Jewel in her pre-sellout days likening recording in a studio to faking an orgasm.

Nonetheless, there are more recordings in the works. The final cut of Poem, which I did with Kieran and also in a different persona, hasn’t grown on me enough for me to upload it. I did some recordings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last month, and if any of that is workable, will definitely upload.

I recommend using headphones, and listening to them loud.

Find me. Add me. Listen. If you like.

* That would be a quote. The subject line is because I think Jerome’s line, “poor man’s Kylie in shorts” is way cool. My friend the actor and credit card abuser Branavan Aruljothi offered me the above for a “sounds like…” comparison. It is not nearly as cool. But neither am I.